James Bond vs. James Bond: Daniel Craig and Pierce Brosnan

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“More men have walked on the moon than have played James Bond”

Pierce Brosnan

The longest-running franchise ever is ready to celebrate its silver wedding anniversary in terms of episodes. No Time to Die – the official title of Bond 25 – is scheduled for release on April 2020.

When the first details of the plot leaked out, media attention was attracted by the fact that the new Agent 007 would have been a woman, the black British actress Lashana Lynch, recently appeared on Captain Marvel.

In reality, it was just a click-bait based on a deliberate misinterpretation between fictional character and role. The film finds Bond retired and living in Jamaica while his vacant codename 007 is reassigned to a woman agent. This will be Daniel Craig’s fifth and probably final outing as James Bond. The search for a replacement has been going on unsuccessfully for many years.

An account of more than half a century of the Bond’s movies would be a very considerable work. Hence, the focus will be here on the latest two embodiments of Agent 007, both quintessential and meaningful, but conceptually in antithesis.

Pierce Brosnan: being Bond

“I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War…”

Goldeneye, 1995

Brosnan’s attempts to wear James Bond’s clothes are well-known: indicated as Sir Roger Moore’s successor, he could not withdraw the contract with NBC for the TV series Remington Steele.

Thus, the role was taken by the Welsh actor Timothy Dalton, a talented artist who had distinguished himself in Shakespeare’s plays. The Bond performed by Dalton is gloomy and aggressive, very different from the preceding ones, too ahead of his time to be appreciated by the audience.

After box office flops, producers decided to go back to the past, possibly in a regal and gorgeous manner. In 1995, after settling his legal matters, the Irish actor was ready for what would become the turning point of his career.

The stylish and charming Bond played by Brosnan is very iconic, the result of the hybridization among two of the major archetypes of the saga: on one hand, Sean Connery’s cool attitude, including his athletic qualities; on the other, Roger Moore’s refinement, humour and dandified style.  A glorious restoration, after Dalton’s inconstancy.

Goldeneye’s terrific debut was followed by three quite disappointing episodes, technological toys which are only remembered for Brosnan’s performances, always well-balanced and in tune with the role. Unfortunately, he was not supported by a good script and direction.

For many, Brosnan is the best expression of “bondism”. He is able to capture the pure essence of the perfect James Bond, the one belonging to the realm of Plato’s ideals and so deeply rooted in the collective imaginary, the result of almost seventy years of literary and movie productions. Brosnan brings back to life the typical Bond, the very super agent always ready to hold a gun, drink Vodka-Martini and seduce women in the way we all expect him to do: we cannot explain it rationally, but it is so.

Brosnan knows how to make his own the iconic figure of Bond. He seems born for this role.  His interpretation is very effective and heavily reminiscent of Connery’s magnetism but devoid of any macho attitude. He also recalls the class and elegance of Roger Moore while never being imitative.

The Bond performed by Brosnan is an Apollonian figure. This category of Aesthetics does apply very well to the character he depicts: a cautious and self-controlled Bond who shows an utter detachment from events, the kind of coolness we ever expect from this personage. Although these movies are more realistic than in the past, Bond’s image is still two-dimensional, maintaining a safe distance between hero and public. Having little psychological depth, Bond can surprise and entertain you, without much emotional involvement.

Highly appreciated by fans who consider him the most convincing Bond, Brosnan is maybe the last heir of an acting tradition which is rapidly disappearing, “a relic” – as M defines him – to be kept under lock.

Daniel Craig: contempt for classic Bond

“Arm yourself because no-one else here will save you…”

You Know my Name – Casino Royale theme song, 2006

The start of the new century is marked by 9/11 attacks (2001), a dramatic event that has changed the world around us, opening the era of global terror and asymmetric warfare.

Bond too is compelled to change, because of the real and frightful events occurring but also for the presence of other fictional heroes imitating – sometimes better – his style and exploits (Mission Impossible, Jason Bourne’s saga).

EON Production, now guided by Albert Broccoli’s daughter, decides to relaunch the series, making a radical departure from tradition, a real “Copernican revolution”.

Once acquired the rights of Ian Fleming’s first novel, the role is offered to Daniel Craig, an English actor still little known, blond-haired and physically quite different from the usual image of the character. This new and risky Bond will mark the reboot of the franchise.

Casino Royale was out in 2006, stirring a huge interest:  it will be a massive success, acclaimed by both audience and critics who regarded Craig’s performance as the most realistic and intense ever.

For many, this is the best movie of the saga, showing a pair of sequences which are very important if we want to fully understand the discontinuity with the past.

In the first one, a young and rude Bond introduces himself to M (Judy Dench), acting as the rebel son of a grumpy but benevolent mother: with his surly eyes and irregular face, he looks like an angry adolescent more than a gentleman spy. Bond reveals here what he has ever been: an adolescent having a strong dislike for responsibilities and ties. The world is his playground. But it will not be so anymore.

The famous scene at the Ocean Club of Nassau where Bond emerges from the sea in tight trunks, looking like a model on the catwalk, undoubtedly recalls Ursula Andress’s introduction in the first movie of the saga. However, it is not just a tribute or a way to emphasize the reversal of roles in the new century, but rather a declaration of intent, a preview of what we are likely to see. The new James Bond is an enigmatic character, able to baffle the audience and escape old definitions: as outwardly macho as feminine in his frailties; fearless and resolute as never before, yet doubtful and always thoughtful. He has psychological depth, a quality the previous ones did not possess.

Daniel Craig’s asymmetric and lined mask depicts an intense and almost expressionist Bond who becomes very brutal when he feels in danger. Relying on Promethean willpower, Craig strenuously moulds his own fictional character, fighting the Connerys, Moores and Brosnans of his unconscious mind, always trying to emerge and affect his performance.  Sometimes, we can almost perceive this effort through the absorbed expressions of the personage. Roughness would become Bond’s distinctive trait, putting aside any dandy manner.

There is a sort of contempt for classic Bond, explicitly emphasized in Vesper Lynd/Eva Green’s words – By the cut of your suit, you went to Oxford or wherever…But you wear it with such distain!”

Contempt which grows into disgust towards the affected manners of his predecessor: whether Vodka Martini is for Brosnan simply a Bond’s cliché to use in the measured and elegant way we expect from him, Craig would consider it for what it is – an alcoholic beverage to gulp down as any frustrated broker would do on Friday nights – drinking it excessively and theatrically.

The reason is that Daniel Craig represents the Dionysian side of the character. He perfectly depicts his huge despise for life originating from a primeval woe, that of the hero being aware of his own mortality, trying to cheat himself and his doom, by continuously defying death. He perfectly depicts his worries, the distress of one who must carry the weight of the world on his shoulders and live the solitary life of a secret agent.

The character also maintains a Dionysian attitude towards ancestral ties: in Skyfall he rediscovers blood ties (family memories) and his native land (the house of his childhood in Scotland), a necessary ablution to resolve his uncertain identity, a way to protect himself from a world which is collapsing under the attacks of a multinational of terror hiding under the shadows and maybe among his own friends.

The cosmopolitan individual, the luxury wanderer, the two-dimensional character we used to know, in Craig’s performance appears as a man having deep roots, but revealing the flaws and the wounds of any ordinary mortal and many doubts about his role.

When national identity weakens, individuality becomes more important, disclosing fears and ancestral emotions. Cold war Britain could indulge on a stereotyped and cartoon-like Bond, uncaring and optimistic, having the psychological thickness of a sheet of paper. But times have changed. In some ways, 21st century Bond is a very complex character, elusive but strong-willed. When he emerges with sinuous grace from sea-foam, as any Bond-girl would do, we can perceive the grim look of one’s brooding over doubts and rage.

Pop Mythology

“Can we live without myths? If so, will not our awakenings be worse, work days harder, love not lively and future more predictable?”

Paco Ignacio Taibo II

Since his debut, James Bond has captured millions of fans and fascinated intellectuals and presidents, from Kennedy to Umberto Eco. Some critical works explain this phenomenon through a universal concept: redemption

Like any true hero, Bond saves the common man from a prosaic and often miserable life, taking revenge for his humiliations and defeats.

Like a superhero, devoid of super powers but always involved in amazing adventures, Bond provides an imaginary escape from everyday life so necessary for our wellbeing: because, James Bond is real, firmly settled in our mind, like myths or religious creeds.

We may think that fictional secret agents are old-fashioned in the “liquid” and confusing world we live. However, these figures are essential to keep alive and shining the constellation of myths entered in popular imagination.

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